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Skip to main content. Log In Sign Up. This well-known artefact still presents many problems of interpretation, resulting in a polemic that still rages regarding its origin, spatial-temporal distribution and its real role in Mesoamerican cultural development.
The subject of warfare in Mesoamerica is still one of the main areas of investigation for many researchers. However, it is common for researchers to analyze the military phenomenon from a completely symbolic standpoint and overlook the practical aspects such as military tactics, weapons systems and battlefield successes.
It is against this background that I have developed a programme of investigation that I have called the Research Programme into Military Equipment in Mesoamerica, which considers the phenomenon of war throughout Mesoamerica from various perspectives.
I have initially focused this programme on weapons systems among the Mexicas as they relate to the battlefield. The Aztec macuahuitl does not fulfil these criteria. I consider that it has no western equivalent and as such the macuahuitl is a totally Mesoamerican weapon.
Classification There were at least two varieties of this weapon. The famous macuahuitl of about 70—80 cm long had a minimum of six to eight blades on each side. The smaller version was the macuahuilzoctli measuring about 50 cm long with a minimum of four blades on each side. Background If we were to list the many different authors who have mentioned this weapon in their narratives, we would have quite a long list, running from the chroniclers of the 16th century to the researchers of modern times.
However, if we consider just those who have done a particular study of this weapon we could count our bibliography on the fingers of both hands, including this study. Among the first people to mention this artefact were the Spanish Conquista- dors who were confronted with it directly, in the hands of the indigenous people on the battlefield in the 16th century.
The weapon was also recorded by monks figure 1. Of the many modern researchers who have studied this artefact, there are those who, in the course of their general work on the history and archaeology of the Mexicas, have mentioned the weapon without going into any great detail.
There are also those who have written works on the Mexicas at war and who doubtless have been unable to disassociate this subject from the weapon in ques- tion. In some cases, research has been concentrated on presenting a hypothetical view of the function of this weapon in war, Katz ; Lameiras ; Hassig; Cervera The macuahuitl was also used in the wars against the Spanish.
This plate of the Llienzo de Tlaxcala shows this weapon with a design that is probably close to reality. Lienzo de Tlaxcala, plate cervra Marco Antonio Pacheco Spatial-temporal distribution in Mesoamerica There is hardly any record of this artefact in much of Mesoamerica before the Post-Classic period. Another problem we face is the ignorance and constant confusion by researchers when they consider all such bladed clubs to be macuahuitls without considering that they have completely different functions.
Below is a short summary of the actual places and areas of pre-Hispanic Mesoamerica where I have been able to find this artefact or similar artefacts which could be forerunners or variants of it. Any omission of certain regions and cultures from the analysis in this work is a practical one, brought about by the complete lack of evidence of this weapon, as in the case of the Gulf Coast, among other areas.
The Mayas of the Pre-Classic already knew this type of club with flint points, but it seems this was not a very common weapon on the early battlefields of Mesoamerica. Schele and Frieidel As far as we know, the earliest evidence of the use of this type of instrument in Mesoamerica is found in the Mayan area.
This weapon is recorded in the murals of Bonampak, a Classic period Maya site, where it is shown as a wooden club without the obsidian or flint blades Hassig This is an interesting fact which will be explained later. In this representation, we can recognise a young warrior holding in one oos a curved club with two blades, presumably made of flint figure 3.
The controversy is again based on the incorrect identification of the object. Some Mexteco manuscripts show versions of the different types of this singular weapon used by the Mextecos, including some that were used like a boomerang.
This lance is made completely of wood, with carved simulated obsidian blades Coggins In the Oaxaca area, we find records from the Post-Classic period. In summary, there are four types of macuahuitl among the Mixtecos. The archaeological history of the Central Altiplano, including that of the Teotihuacanos and aztevas the famous Toltecs, contains no record of brevw weapon before the Late Post-Classic period.
But the main question in this argument is from whom did they copy this weapon? One of the most interesting controversies surrounding the origin of this weapon is that the archaeological record of the Early Post-Classic in the cultures of Central Mexico does not make clear that this weapon was used by azrecas groups such as the Mexica and the Toltecs. It would appear that it was the Toltec society that invented and inherited this bree weapon from the Mexicas them- selves, but the archaeological record is fairly poor.
When we check both the sculptural monuments and the archaeological finds published up until now, this weapon at no time appears. Could it be, maybe, that the weapons systems in the Mayan area were much more evolved than those of the famous Tula warriors of Hidalgo? The origin and distribution of this weapon is a problem still to be solved and which no doubt includes the polemics mentioned earlier.
As more and more archaeological finds are unearthed throughout Mesoamerica, this problem obrrgn be explained along with the diverse repercussions for understanding the weapons systems and tactical elements aztecad on the battlefields of Mesoamerica.
Finally, we come to the Mexica people, who are the best candidates to be the main innovator of weapons in their age. In spite of the fact that Toltec archaeol- ogy does not make clear their use in the Early Post-Classic period, written sources reveal otherwise. In another work, I have already tried to determine the moment when the Mexicas first used the weapons system that they would still be using even during the Spanish conquest Cervera Unfortunately, we have to understand that the history of the Mexica during the stage of the migration is fairly ambiguous, since it is a mixture of myth and history.
We know more about this Mexica weapon from written sources than from archaeology itself. According to some chroniclers, the Mexicas already knew about these weapons from the start of their history. Elected as the captain general of these people Huitzilihuitl commanded that all along the frontage of that hill there should be built many walls of stone Again, the polemic arises in knowing whether or not the real inventors of this particular weapon really were Mexica, as authors such as Michael Coe For their part, the conquistadores had spoken of this weapon ever since their arrival on the coast, saying IV, V Others, with some exaggeration, describe their use in battle.
Pictographic documents note its use and principally its form. The prisoner was given the chance of release if he overcame seven elite Mexica warriors, armed with a shield and macuahuitl, equipped with obsidian blades, while the captive was equipped with a shield and a wooden staff decorated with cotton plumes to simulate the obsidian blades figures 5, 6, 7, 8.
According to some manuscripts the first Mexica armies used the macuahuitl as a weapon, as in this case, during the conquest of Culhuacan. Telleriano Remensis Codex, fol.
National Library of Paris, France. National Library of Paris. In this colonial codex, the image of the macuahuitl is quite distorted. It appears as a very slender baton with very prominent prismatic blades. Marco Antonio Pacheco Figure 8 Mexica warriors with macuahuitl holding a captive. It seems the Mexicas already knew of this weapon from the start of their history, including the various people the Lowlands of Mexico who were their enemies.
Breve Historia de los Aztecas by Marco Antonio Cervera Obregón (, Paperback) | eBay
This image shows a warrior with a macuahuitl fitted with blades, which could probably be removed after battle. Illustration showing one of the Figure 10 Drawing of the few original examples macuahuitzoctli.
Drawing of of a Mexica a ceremonial wooden votive macuahuitl, macuahuitl made by the unfortunately Mexica people. Collection of destroyed in the 19th the National Museum of century.
Marco Anthropology in Mexico. Antonio Pacheco Redrawn aztecae Morales If it were just from Mexica archaeological evidence alone, we might think that this weapon was hardly used by this people. Very few archaeological objects have been recovered. One of the original examples available was to be found in the Royal Armoury in Madrid until it was destroyed by fire in Hassig This unique example is supposedly in the archaeological vaults of loz National Anthropology Museum. In addition, we have a second example that opens up a certain amount of controversy.
Maybe this is an error of identification or in fact there is actually another example that has not yet been located.
Denton Public Library /All Locations
This monument has scenes carved on its four sides associated with militarism and the cosmic vision of the Mexica. I had initially interpreted this representation as a macuahuitl, but we know that it is a macuahutzoclti from its size and the three blades. We can say that this piece is one of the few sculptural representations from the Mexicas in which this type of weapon appears. This seems to be one of the few Mexica sculptures showing a representation of this type of weapon.
National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico. Its importance as a striking weapon was recorded even in artistic representations in the early time of the viceroy such as the images of the Franciscan temple of Ixmiquilpan in the State of Hidalgo, Mexico, which depict a group of Nahua warriors confronting the northern Chichimeca armies in the middle of the 16th century Gruzinski figure If there is controversy about its origin and distribution and its true function on the pre-Hispanic xe, there is even brwve when we analyze how war was waged among the Mexicas.
I have already described what the historians thought about this weapon, but what really happened in pre-Hispanic times when it came Figure 12 Mace with flint points mwrco in the paintings of Mul chic, Yucatan, Mexico. The evolution of striking weapons among the Mayans urged them to develop this type of elongated mace with large bifacial flints that made it effective in both striking and cutting. This type of mace continued at least until the Early Post-Classic.
Was the macuahuitl perhaps used on the battlefield as well as in some kind of ritual? I have already described in other works the characteristics of the Mexica at war and their respective tactics Cervera The serious problem with the macuahuitl is without doubt the debate regarding its function, its strength and its destructive potential.
According to this document, we know that when the Mexicas were at war, they occasionally uncovered spies among the enemy gangs marauding through the city of Tenochtitlan.
Those that were captured were taken to a temple called macuilcalli or macuilquiauitl to be dismembered with the weapon from which that temple derived its name, the macuahuitl figure The possibility of being able carry out dismemberment with this weapon is as controversial as the strength of the weapon itself.
It is probable that there was a store of extra blades in the camps in order to be able to repair their weapons before the next combat Clark As other researchers have already said, it is highly probable that some kind of repairs would have to be done to one edge of the blades leaving the other exposed in order to fit the blades into the groove where they were set into the handle of the weapon Clark These claims give rise to a fairly reliable hypothesis that we can only prove by experimental archaeology — reproducing the weapon and using it on a surface as similar as possible to a battlefield opponent.
For this purpose, we carried out the following experimental work. The instrument basically has the following morphological elements: We have not till now been able to find a reliable source that will tell us the precise wood with which this artefact was made.
My proposal is that the wood used for this must have been of great hardness and abundance if it was to provide weapons for the great Mesoamerican armies, so it is quite probable that the macuahuitls were made of encino oak. Two questions arise with regard to how the blades were set and the type of material that was used to stick them into the side of the club.